Is Ireland Neutral? The Many Myths of Irish Neutrality, by Conor Gallagher, Gill Books, 336 pp, €18.99, ISBN: 978-0717195992
Conor Gallagher asks a simple question: is Ireland neutral? However, as he amply demonstrates in this lucid, readable and very timely book, this simple question does not have a simple answer.
A scan of newspaper headlines would suggest that everyone agrees that Ireland is indeed neutral. But opinions about neutrality’s meaning clash. For decades some have argued that our neutrality is being progressively eroded, and that its potential as a basis for a more active foreign policy is not being utilised. Equally consistently, governments and their supporters have replied that Ireland’s commitments and actions during that period do not breach its neutrality (often carefully qualified as our ‘traditional policy of military neutrality’) and that neutrality is safe. While disagreeing on most things, it would seem, however, that both sides believe there is such a thing as Irish neutrality. But is this accurate? And what does the concept mean? It turns out that it all depends.
In the last eighteen months Europe’s security landscape has been transformed by Russia’s bloody war in Ukraine, and the robust response of NATO, the EU, and their member states, with the United States leading the way. A notable consequence has been the swift decision of both Finland and Sweden to join NATO.
At the United Nations and elsewhere, Ireland has made clear its abhorrence of Russia’s outrageous actions, and its firm support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity. It has provided defence funding to Ukraine through the EU’s European Peace Facility, though the provision of lethal weapons remains off-limits. We contribute to economic assistance for Ukraine and are implementing numerous rounds of EU sanctions against Russia.
Ireland is, fortunately, a long way from Russia, though by no means immune from new forms of attack on our IT systems or maritime infrastructure. The risks facing us may not be either acute or immediate. But events have sparked a new and lively debate on neutrality, or, less snappily but perhaps more accurately, on how Ireland should position itself in the new international security environment.
In late June Micheál Martin convened a four-day Forum on International Security Policy. The numerous contributors, many of them from outside Ireland, spoke about a great range of issues, and answered questions from those present in person and online. (I moderated the session on the EU’s common security and defence policy [CSDP]). The contributions were well-informed and did not seek to proselytise. Despite claims that participation was stacked in favour of those who questioned or relativised neutrality, those making such claims had ample opportunity to express their views (four questions in my session came from that angle). The chair’s report is expected this autumn, following which the government will consider its policy implications.
The forum attracted unexpected attention following the publication of a newspaper interview with President Higgins just beforehand. Leaving aside the president’s comments about the distinguished Irish academic who chaired the forum, as well as about the policies of a number of EU partners, and the constitutional propriety of what he said about government policy, he displayed his affinity with those who scent the betrayal of neutrality at every turn, warning of ‘a dangerous drift’ and ‘playing with fire’. These have been his instincts and opinions throughout his long career: what was surprising was that he chose to express them now, and in such terms. His intervention was mostly composed of generalities, which some might characterise as slogans. The effect was to underline the case for a well-informed debate.
The first half of Conor Gallagher’s book asks how neutrality is understood internationally and outlines Irish policy from the foundation of the state to the later twentieth century. The second part examines current issues. As Gallagher acknowledges, he owes a great deal to Patrick Keatinge, the doyen of Irish foreign policy scholars. (Disclosure: as a retired Irish diplomat I was one of many people who spoke to him, and I am quoted in the book.)
The fifth and thirteenth Hague Conventions of 1907 defined neutrality in international law. They stipulated three basic principles: the denial of the use of the national territory to belligerents, with a willingness and capacity to use force to protect it if need be; no support provided to either side, though normal trade might continue; and strict impartiality. The conventions, however, have been largely overtaken by events. They assume the existence of a formal declaration of war – now a rarity. Certain ways in which Ireland assisted Britain in the Second World War – such as sharing the findings of espionage and the provision of weather reports – are not included in the list of prohibited actions. And, critically, the conventions do not address the fundamental issue of how states should behave in peacetime. While they still have some limited normative value, their restrictions upon states’ policies have rarely, if ever, been implemented in full.
Even the most neutral of the neutrals, Switzerland, was less than fully even-handed in the Second World War. And after decades of choosing to stay out of the United Nations, following a close-run referendum it joined in 2002. The Swiss foreign ministry confidently asserts that ‘membership has not damaged Swiss neutrality…[it] is compatible with Switzerland’s status as a permanently neutral state’.
Gallagher looks at how other European neutrals have handled themselves. There have been considerable variations between them, and practice has changed over time. What is clear is that neutrality has been a policy which combines principle and pragmatism. It can adapt in the light of circumstances and is not an unchanging set of rules. One sympathises with the scholar quoted by Keatinge who defined neutrality as ‘the policy conducted by countries which claim to conduct such a policy’.
Gallagher’s focus is of course on Ireland. Going right back to Wolfe Tone, who wrote that Ireland would not be obliged to join Great Britain in a war against Spain and should decide on the basis of its own interests, Irish rebels and revolutionaries have opposed participation in great power wars, specifically British ones. But the concept of neutrality was rarely invoked. Its strongest proponent, Roger Casement, obtained assistance from Germany during the First World War, and the 1916 Proclamation speaks of ‘gallant allies’. There was no substantive reference to neutrality in the First Dáil’s Message to the Free Nations of the World or in the Declaration of Independence. Gallagher suggests that the idea of non-involvement in foreign wars during the early years of independence should be seen more as an expression of sovereignty than a principle in itself. In any event, in the 1920s and ’30s it was largely accepted that Britain had a strong interest in Ireland’s security which needed to be accommodated. British retention of the Treaty Ports, which would have made neutrality during the Second World War completely impossible, and the other defence-related aspects, were not a major factor in the debate on the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Moreover, with very limited financial resources and many other challenges, maintaining the Irish defence forces at a level which would give them a meaningful capacity to defend Irish territory was not a priority for either Cumann na nGaedheal or Fianna Fáil governments. In 1936 Colonel Dan Bryan of the army’s intelligence branch, G2, wrote a searing assessment of Ireland’s preparedness for a European war. This formed the basis for an appeal by the chief of staff for money to recruit more soldiers and to acquire anti-aircraft guns and aeroplanes. The minister for finance, Seán MacEntee, was dismissive: there wouldn’t be a war and if there were Ireland would be overrun in any case. A pattern of neglect was established.
In the early 1930s Éamon de Valera was a strong supporter of the League of Nations and the concept of collective security. But after the league’s failure to support Abyssinia against Italy’s invasion, he grew disillusioned and acknowledged that in the event of a large-scale war Ireland would have to chart its own course. This was in line with strong public reluctance to be involved in a war. John Redmond’s disastrous appeal to Irishmen to fight alongside Britain for the rights of small nations, and the 1918 conscription crisis, were relatively recent – the former as close in time in 1939 as the Good Friday Agreement is today. De Valera also appreciated the strong Anglophobia of a section of the population, and the unrest that fighting alongside Britain while the island remained partitioned would create. So there was general support for neutrality during the Second World War, and this support was little affected by the course of the war or by revelations of German genocide against the Jewish people (not that this was a major factor among the Allies either).
The Second World War crystallised the emergence of neutrality in public opinion and political discourse as a fundamental feature of Ireland’s international relations, indeed of our identity. But in the war it was a strategic policy, not an unwavering principle. De Valera was open to considering its abandonment in exchange for reunification, but he did not believe that the offer from Churchill could be relied upon. Gallagher sets out the many ways – thirteen different ones, in the later calculation of Joe Walshe, the secretary of the Department of External Affairs ‑ in which de Valera’s ‘certain consideration’ for the United Kingdom was made concrete. Over recent decades these have become well-known: they ranged from code-breaking, to the favourable treatment of allied airmen forced to land in Ireland, to the provision of weather reports, to allowing tens of thousands of Irish citizens to leave the island to serve in the British forces and in war industries.
Ireland’s adherence to the outward forms of neutrality was punctilious, and it would not contemplate the presence of British or other allied forces on its soil, short of a German invasion. But overall MI5’s postwar assessment that Ireland had been of more use as a neutral than it would have been as a belligerent was more representative of official British opinion than Churchill’s tirade of May 13th, 1945, de Valera’s famous reply to which further cemented public belief in neutrality. Some in Britain, however, did share Churchill’s irritated disdain. One particular myth spread by popular newspapers endured, that of the systematic refuelling of U-boats off the Irish coast.
Ireland had been lucky, above all in its geography. Keatinge notes that of twenty European states which were neutral at the start of the war only five remained so at the end. Neutrality had offered most of its adherents no defence against invasion.
In the immediate postwar period there was little retrospective questioning of the choice of neutrality. But that it was indeed a choice, not an immutable principle, was further demonstrated when NATO was formed in 1949. The then minister for external affairs, Seán McBride, ruled out membership – not because Ireland was permanently neutral but because a member of the alliance occupied part of the national territory. Efforts to use the possibility of joining as a lever against partition were given short shrift, as was a subsequent offer of a bilateral defence alliance with the United States. Ideologically, Ireland was very much a part of the Western bloc in its opposition to Soviet communism. In practical terms, it continued to co-operate sub rosa with the British, including on the protection of its airspace. It accepted the assistance of the British and American intelligence services in monitoring the Soviet embassy in Dublin after it opened in the 1970s, expelling spies in 1983.
Switzerland did not join the United Nations because it saw membership as incompatible with neutrality. This was not the view of Ireland or of other European neutrals, notwithstanding the possibility that under the UN Charter it could be obliged to support UN military operations. At the United Nations, with Frank Aiken as minister for external affairs, it adopted some high-profile positions which were at variance with those of the United States and other Western powers. But overall its voting record was close to theirs. As Gallagher highlights, undoubtedly our status as a non-member of NATO did make us more acceptable as a leading champion of nuclear non-proliferation, involvement in disarmament becoming a long-term feature of our foreign policy. But this was an isolated example. Another innovation was Irish participation in peace-keeping operations, in which members of the Defence Forces have served continuously for over sixty years. This required the amendment of the Defence Act to allow troops to take part in overseas missions, but no questions were raised on this issue as to whether neutrality might be at risk. Notwithstanding the deaths of soldiers in Congo and subsequently, public pride in our contribution has been unwavering. I recall explaining this to a somewhat mystified Swiss parliamentary committee in 2009. As Switzerland, by then a member of the UN, edged towards low-key participation in missions, there remained very considerable national scepticism.
In the 1960s neutrality also arose in the context of Ireland’s application to join the EEC. There was a consciousness at high levels that Irish membership was a matter of little interest to the Six. Every effort was made to reassure them that Ireland would not cause problems. A concern unique to the Irish case was its non-membership of NATO. NATO membership was never a precondition of accession; but the prospect of a defence union in the longer term was very important, above all to France. Might Ireland be a drag on or block to progress?
Handling the question required careful calibration. Lemass had already broached the issue in interviews and speeches. The avoidance of any direct link between EEC and NATO membership was important. However, it was made clear that Ireland’s non-membership of NATO had arisen from the particular problem of partition, and not out of a principled neutrality. Ireland fully supported the objective of political union, in which it was committed to playing a full part, and which it acknowledged might well involve a common defence policy. Lemass assured the Council of Ministers that this was understood not just by the government, but also by the Dáil and the Irish people, as the context in which our application was made.
A note by TK Whitaker in January 1962 set out his strong views on the NATO question. It was essential that our position did not leave open the possibility of its use by others as an excuse to block EEC membership. Yes, joining NATO was not and should not be a condition, but ‘nobody so loves us as to want us in the EEC on our own terms’. Ireland could be seen by others as ‘[bringing] the Community no particular benefits but [inflicting] on it additional problems including (as [the Six] might well see it) this tiresome 40-year-old squabble with Britain’. He went on to challenge the logic, in 1949 and in 1962, of the NATO/partition link, and to ask if we could be seen ‘as treating a narrow national interest as being more important than unity and co-operation in the defence of Western civilisation’.
The issue became less salient as the decade progressed and the Community entered a difficult period of stagnation. There was confidence that challenging advances towards political and defence union were now less likely. Nonetheless, some were less sanguine. One official observed that European integration might start moving again. And the Irish people were very sensitive on questions of sovereignty and national independence. The public saw EEC membership in exclusively economic terms and were unaware of the other dimensions. The Labour Party and left-wing intellectuals were developing ‘cogent and forceful’ arguments. We should take a very cautious and gradualist approach.
However, in public statements and in discussions with others, our full openness to assuming whatever political or defence obligations might develop continued to be stressed. Nobody did so more enthusiastically than the minister for finance: in 1967 Charles Haughey assured the president of the Commission that in the Dáil he had ‘spelled out fully our acceptance of the political and eventual defence policy involved and that no objections had been expressed’. In 1969 Jack Lynch told the Dáil that ‘we have no traditional policy of military neutrality in this country’. In the event, economic expectations led in the 1972 referendum to an overwhelming majority in favour of EEC membership; foreign and security policy issues were little considered.
Gallagher’s excellent summary of the history of neutrality up to the 1980s makes six things abundantly clear. First, there was consistently strong public support for staying out of international wars, and little criticism ‑ quite the reverse ‑ of our neutrality in the Second World War. Second, there was a willingness to participate in international organisations in which military obligations might arise. Third, ideologically, politically and in terms of practical assistance successive governments were not neutral in any full sense of the word and consistently leaned towards other Western democracies. Fourth, there was an understanding and an acceptance that European integration could lead to a common defence policy. Fifth, Ireland’s national defences were woefully weak, such as to vitiate our obligation as a neutral to be able to resist attempts to use our territory. And sixth, there was little substantive public or political discussion.
Somewhere around 1980 the debate changed, as Patrick Keatinge observed in his 1984 book A Singular Stance. Exactly why can be debated. There was a combination of factors. The reinvigoration of the Cold War heightened popular concerns about nuclear destruction and stimulated protest movements across Europe. Justifiable hostility to aspects of US foreign policy (for example in Vietnam and Chile, and later in Central America), and some continuing naivety about communist regimes, made some wish a plague on both blocs. While the left was still not electorally successful, it was more vocal and articulate in challenging the government.
And Ireland’s relationship with its nearest NATO neighbour came under severe stress from the Troubles. During the 1982 Falklands War, following the sinking of the General Belgrano Haughey – though he had shortly beforehand been prepared to discuss a defence pact with Margaret Thatcher in the context of discussions on Northern Ireland – invoked neutrality in withdrawing Ireland from EC sanctions against Argentina. This was notwithstanding the UN Security Council’s condemnation of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands and the domestic brutality of the junta. Haughey’s main motivation was to assuage the very strong nationalist instincts – indeed the Anglophobia ‑ of much of Fianna Fáil. Diplomatically the move was disastrous, as senior officials pointed out. However, it initiated a period in which allegations of a betrayal of neutrality began to form part of Fianna Fáil’s arsenal of weapons against Fine Gael, and of mainstream political debate generally.
For forty years and more, governments – including those led by Fianna Fáil – have faced claims that they are seeking to bring Ireland into NATO by stealth. This claim was repeated during the recent Forum on International Security Policy. It is abundantly clear that no government has had the slightest intention of doing so, and that this continues to be the case notwithstanding the shift in the Swedish and Finnish positions. If a government were to apply to join NATO, politically, if perhaps not legally, it would have to call a referendum. And there is little or no doubt that the proposition would be roundly defeated.
The extent of popular Irish aversion to NATO is peculiar. The alliance has for seventy years provided the security shield under which the Western world, and in particular Europe, has remained free and become prosperous. Its members are overwhelmingly our European partners, only three of which – Austria, Cyprus and Malta – have continued to stay out. Its other members are countries with which we have extremely close political, economic and human ties. But there seems to be no possibility of a rethink. And the vigour with which the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have rebutted any claim that there are plans to join the organisation has presumably served to reinforce the perception of its toxicity.
NATO’s secretary general confirmed to Gallagher that an Irish application would be welcome. But a NATO official who spoke at the forum said that in his twenty years in the organisation he had never heard anyone mention the possibility of Irish membership. This is scarcely surprising, given the overwhelming evidence that we will not seek it. And what would Ireland bring to the table? Our defence spending, at 0.2% of GDP – a figure, incidentally, which a group of visiting Danish parliamentarians I met recently thought they must have misheard – is only one-tenth of the 2% target NATO members are committed to meet.
Ireland has, however, indeed moved a bit closer to NATO through Partnership for Peace (PfP), the structure within which the organisation has co-operated with non-members since the 1990s. Ireland inched its way towards membership. It was slower than Austria and Switzerland. Before it took the plunge, in 1999, it was one of only three potential members which had not joined, the others being Tajikistan and Malta. Political opposition was extensive, including from Labour, a member of the rainbow coalition government. Fianna Fáil, in opposition, promised a referendum. It then reneged on this pledge once in office – giving colour to fears of future betrayal.
In practice, as Gallagher points out, PfP membership has offered the Defence Forces valuable opportunities for higher-grade training, development and co-operation, which have been important in equipping them for modern peace support operations. Indeed, Irish troops have participated in two UN-endorsed NATO-led missions, in Kosovo and Afghanistan, where their Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) expertise was appreciated. However, as the Commission on the Defence Forces reported in 2022, Irish battalions still ‘do not align to NATO standards, are under-staffed and under-equipped …’
Politically, Ireland remains very shy about its involvement with PfP. Extraordinarily, our diplomatic presence at NATO headquarters in Brussels continues to be described as a PfP Liaison Office – the formula hit upon in 1999. Switzerland has no compunction in having a Permanent Mission to NATO. Ireland is the only PfP member never to have been visited by a NATO secretary general. Such timidity may indeed seem to suggest that something disreputable is going on.
The other way in which Ireland has inched closer to NATO is through increasing co-operation between it and the EU. While not actively encouraging this, we have recognised political reality, not least the strong attachment to NATO of our partners, as recognised in the Treaty on European Union. We have not blocked the development of co-operation, subject to respect for the UN, our own national position, and the maintenance of the EU’s decision-making autonomy. Gallagher’s conclusion is succinct: ‘In most of the ways that matter, Ireland is not in the waiting room for NATO. It’s barely in the car park.’
The other principal charge against government policy is that it has colluded in the ‘militarisation’ of the EU. The EU, as envisaged by its founding fathers and as expected by the government when it first applied to join, has indeed over the last thirty years, through four treaties and a range of policy initiatives, developed a progressively more ambitious security and defence policy. The ultimate aim is an undefined ‘common defence’.
However, the Union is hardly on the way to becoming a military giant. Crucially, its security and defence policy is aimed at extra-European peace support and capacity-building missions, both military and civilian (policing, criminal justice assistance, etc). Territorial defence remains firmly the domain of NATO. This is the clear preference of most member states. The Ukraine war has underlined the indispensability of NATO, and in particular of the United States, whose military capacity dwarfs that of all European states put together. The gap is even greater than it would be if initiatives to streamline European military co-operation, and in particular defence procurement, were more successful. President Macron’s 2019 diagnosis of NATO’s ‘brain death’ has turned out to be not just diplomatically ham-fisted but entirely wrong for now. There is, however, a risk that Trump redux would seriously damage the alliance, putting more pressure on the EU to step up. This would pose fresh challenges for Ireland.
Until now, we have been spared the hard choices which would be posed by real EU defence integration. Our approach has been to insist on the inclusion in all relevant texts of the Treaty’s provision that the Union’s common security and defence policy ‘shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states’. The insertion of this Irish formulation into the Maastricht Treaty, and its retention ever since, have absorbed a good deal of diplomatic effort and creativity. The ‘specific character’ of Ireland’s policy was formally elaborated upon in declarations after the initial referendum defeat of the Nice Treaty in 2001. The constitutional amendment approved by the successful 2002 referendum prohibited Ireland from taking part in a common defence. The guarantees offered by the EU following the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 offered further assurances. They made clear that the Treaty did not affect or prejudice Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. It did not require it to join the European Defence Agency (EDA) or Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). It was further emphasised that the Treaty did not impose any obligations regarding military expenditure. Responding to rumours spread during the referendum campaign, it made clear that there were no provisions for a European Army or for conscription. It is not clear to what degree these issues determined the failure of the first Nice and Lisbon referendums. It was necessary for the government to respond, though I personally doubt that many No voters would have been persuaded to change their views on this particular basis.
Within the parameters of our red lines, Ireland has consistently decided, usually slowly and with caution, to take a modest part in new CSDP actions and policies, including PESCO and the EDA (participation in which turned out to be to our practical benefit). We have since 2006 been a member of battlegroups (small multinational forces ready to intervene quickly in a crisis: so far they have never been used). More significantly, Irish troops, sailors, gardaí, and other experts have taken part in numerous CSDP missions, both military and civilian, the largest contribution being to the peace support mission in Chad in 2008-9, commanded by Irish general Pat Nash.
All of the military missions have operated under a United Nations mandate, as is legally required under the Triple Lock – in reality a double lock of Dáil approval and UN endorsement, as it is hardly likely that personnel would be deployed without government authorisation. The appropriateness of the Triple Lock has been vigorously challenged since the invasion of Ukraine. Its defenders argue that to remove it would be a step away from the United Nations, which legally at least retains the ultimate authority for international security, and thus in theory lies at the heart of our foreign policy. Its critics point out that to make our sovereign decisions subject to great power vetoes makes no sense. A mandate from the EU, of which we are a full and permanent member legally equal to all others, would not be sufficient to enable us to take part in an EU mission. I am in the second camp. But the practical importance of a change is not clear. While only one UN mission in which we would have wished to take part has fallen foul of a SECCO veto (China in respect of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2001), it is indeed true that other possible missions have not been brought to a vote because Permanent Member opposition was clear in advance.
There has been a reduction in the number of EU military missions in recent years. This may reflect a new awareness of Europe’s reduced status in the world and a realisation that ‘white saviours’ are increasingly unwelcome in many parts of it. But the general value of peace operations has come under significant scrutiny and difficult lessons have been learned about their effectiveness operating with unclear mandates, limited resources and in situations of political instability – very visible in Mali and Congo, for instance. For some of the same reasons the UN has not launched a new mission in nine years.
A particularly important EU innovation has been the recent creation of the European Peace Facility (EPF), which channels substantial financial support to third country governments. It developed from a fund dedicated to Africa but has been used on a large scale to assist Ukraine. It is off-budget, being financed by individual Member State contributions. Ireland abstained in the decision to use the EPF, and then explicitly confined the use of its support to non-lethal equipment and training. This distinction is illogical. First, we are clearly and unequivocally on Ukraine’s side in the war. Second, we participate in a wide range of sanctions intended to weaken Russia’s economy, punish leading actors in the regime and degrade its fighting capacity. Third, even non-lethal support strengthens Ukraine’s capacity to wage war. And fourth, military expenditure is fungible: to the extent that Ireland pays for non-lethal support, funds are freed up for lethal weapons.
Our role in supporting Ukraine is clearly inconsistent with two dimensions of the classic definition of neutrality – we are taking sides in a conflict and we are supporting a belligerent.
A final way in which our EU membership has put our traditional policy under strain is through the ‘solidarity clause’ of the Treaty on European Union: ‘If a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States [that is., as explained earlier, Ireland and other non-NATO members].’ In Gallagher’s view, this was ‘arguably the most consequential decision for neutrality since the State refused to join NATO’. However, the decision by heads of state or government which formed part of the Lisbon guarantees of 2009 confirmed that ‘It will be for member states, including Ireland, acting in a spirit of solidarity and without prejudice to its traditional policy of military neutrality – to determine the nature of aid or assistance to be provided to a Member State …’ The national declaration made by Ireland at the same time does not address this issue specifically but recalled its traditional policy of military neutrality and the confirmation in the Treaty that the CSDP shall not prejudice the specific character of the security policy of certain member states. This carefully balanced language is unlikely to be tested in the European Court of Justice, but the most convincing interpretation seems to be that while Ireland would be obliged to offer assistance to another Member State under attack, that assistance would not be required to be military, even if we were in a position to offer such help.
The issue is rather hypothetical. The NATO mutual defence clause would kick in if one of its member states were attacked, and it seems unlikely that any of the four non-NATO member states would be a primary target of external aggression – except possibly in the sui generis case of Cyprus. If one were, it seems unlikely that NATO would stand aside. Moreover, Ireland would not be a potential source of meaningful military assistance.
However, from an Irish perspective, an important question is raised about our understanding of the nature of solidarity and its limits in the process of European integration. Some suggest that EU support during the great financial crisis and Brexit process has created a greater expectation among other Member States of changes in our position. I have never thought this. Contrary to popular perception, a Member State’s position in one policy area does not normally influence how it is seen in other, unrelated ones. And Ireland’s position on security and defence policy does not create problems for others. There is a question, though, which self-respect should make us consider. If another member state were the victim of naked aggression, would it be tenable, morally or politically, for Ireland to withhold military assistance if it were an option? But to draw the obvious conclusion – it wouldn’t be – is to run into a core element of anyone’s definition of neutrality.
Gallagher also examines the use of Shannon Airport by the United States military – a subject of long-running controversy. He points out that over three million American troops have transited through it, including on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq. He is largely incorrect, however, in saying that most planes have carried weapons: yes, soldiers do carry their own personal firearms, but munitions of war are prohibited. The US has used Shannon since 1958. The first Gulf War and the overthrow of the Taliban post-9/11 were both the subject of UN resolutions and Ireland was indeed obliged under the UN Charter to offer support. However, the 2003 Iraq War was a different story. No UN mandate was in place at the time of the US invasion, which the Irish government and many other EU Member States did not support. It was highly controversial in terms of public opinion. However, the government was determined, for broader economic and political reasons, not to deprive the US of the use of Shannon. In the absence of a UN mandate the political argument it made in the Dáil was based on the claim that freedom of decision, making up our own minds about what was right for Ireland, was at the core of neutrality. I was involved in the drafting of this formulation. Gallagher quotes me as saying that we had stretched the concept of neutrality to the limit. But the government was entitled to make an assessment that the broad national interest lay in not harming our relationship with the United States.
Shortly afterwards, as outlined by Gallagher, Edward Horgan brought a case alleging that refuelling at Shannon was a breach of what he saw as the constitution’s implicit commitment to neutrality, as understood under international law. Mr Justice Kearns rejected the case, but essentially on the grounds of the executive’s power to conduct foreign policy: he showed sympathy for Horgan’s argument. Since then, there have been many calls from the left to ‘put neutrality in the Constitution’.
Gallagher also discusses the controversy surrounding another use of Shannon ‑ the government’s alleged collusion with the US in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ of suspected terrorists, who were often subjected to torture. This illegal practice, which involved the use of private, not military, aircraft, undoubtedly took place, with the active support of some European governments, during the early 2000s. To some extent, and like very many other people, Gallagher appears to assume that the culpability of the Irish government has been proven. Very often this question has been conflated with that of the overt use of Shannon by the US military.
The government’s counter-analysis was set out robustly in a memorandum which was appended to a very critical 2007 report by the Irish Commission on Human Rights. In essence, the defence was that all that had been demonstrated was that certain planes used in extraordinary rendition had passed through Shannon at relevant times some years before allegations were made. There was no evidence that prisoners had been transported through Irish territory, and indeed no logical reason, looking at flight plans and the prisoners’ destinations, why Shannon should have been included in the operational parts of the planes’ journeys. We had firm and unequalled US assurances. And to put in place a system of random searches of private US aircraft, several years after the fact, would have been an unparalleled action. It is not disputed that aircraft used in extraordinary rendition did pass through Shannon, but I think that one campaigner’s comparison of Ireland’s role to ‘helping a bank robber on the way to a bank robbery’ is unfair and wrong: we were more like a petrol station where a car was refilled en route to a heist.
Since the 1980s the advocates of the purest possible form of neutrality, as they see it, have presented it not merely as a reflection of the Irish people’s values and interests, but as strengthening Ireland’s capacity to make a distinctive contribution to international peace and justice. This ‘positive’ or ‘active’ neutrality, it is argued, would make us a more credible champion of disarmament, development, human rights, peacekeeping and conflict resolution. These are all important and worthy components of our foreign policy, if at times over-emphasised compared to the core tasks of maintaining the security and prosperity of the state and ensuring strong relationships with our neighbours and partners. Ireland’s international reputation, it is often said, is burnished by an awareness of our neutrality. At the International Security Policy Forum the Taoiseach suggested that it was an asset in our successful campaign for election to the Security Council in 2020. This is an attractive and powerful vision, which appeals to many Irish people and plays to our national self-image. The problem, as demonstrated by Gallagher, is that it is self-delusional wishful thinking. He quotes numerous experts and participants in the various fields to confirm that there is in fact little international knowledge or appreciation of Ireland’s security policy. Our historical struggle to free ourselves from the British empire is much better-known, and remains a calling card a century on.
This is not to say that Ireland cannot have, does not have or should not actively promote desirable foreign policy goals. But there is little evidence that this would change with a different defence policy. Let us consider the case of Norway. In 1949 it was one of twelve founder members of NATO. The present secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, is a former Norwegian prime minister. Has this had any inhibiting effect on its foreign policy? Norway’s spending on development is about 30 per cent higher than Ireland’s. Institutionally and through the assignment of high-profile figures it has been much more active in conflict resolution, above all of course through the Oslo Accords of 1993, even though the effectiveness of many such initiatives has proven to be limited. It is a strong and determined champion of human rights. It is also an advocate of arms control. Gallagher cites Ireland’s leading role in the negotiation of the 2008 Cluster Munitions Convention, in which I took part, but the initiative originally came from Norway. To honour this, we were happy to cede the honour of hosting the signature ceremony to Oslo, while normal practice would have had it take place in Dublin. As regards UN peace missions, In March this year the UN’s under-secretary-general for peace operations praised Norway as ‘a steady and trusted partner’ with a notably strong recent contribution to promoting the role of women.
Other NATO members – Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, to name a few – also have distinguished records in these fields, as do new NATO members Sweden and Finland. In the 2020 Security Council election of two members from the Western Europe and Others group, Norway came first, with Ireland a close second and Canada some distance away in third. So NATO members came first and last. We cannot know how far national security and defence policies affected the outcome of a secret ballot, but speculation suggests an equivocal conclusion. Ireland’s neutrality – more precisely, its non-membership of NATO – may have helped in securing votes from anti-Western states including Russia and China, but harmed it with the US and the UK. For France and other European countries our EU membership, certainly not our neutrality, may have been a major factor.
Having earlier set out how the serious under-resourcing, and indeed neglect, of the Defence Forces goes back a hundred years, to the foundation of the state, Gallagher demonstrates how until recently the government, both at political level and in the Department of Finance (and now the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform) has remained consistently indifferent to appeals for more investment. The consequences are clear. Ireland depends almost entirely on the assistance of NATO members to respond to attack. Gallagher quotes Whitaker after retirement: Ireland is like ‘an uninsured, untaxed motorist, skimping on car maintenance’ ‑ not that this insight, offered after his retirement, had changed the habitual parsimony of his department.
Ireland relies on the UK to monitor its airspace and to take any necessary action. More recently, the inadequacy of our naval service to monitor suspicious activity in our territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone has been apparent. Assessments of the damage which could be caused by this weakness focus on the security of transatlantic underwater cables, which are of vital importance to Ireland and on both sides of the Atlantic. Farcically, it recently emerged that only two out of the six ships in the fleet are currently at sea. This is due to staffing shortages caused by poor pay and conditions – problems which also affect the Army and the Air Corps, particularly in specialist roles. Cyber-security is another major concern, though greater efforts are being made in this area. It is unsurprising that the agenda for future co-operation with EU and PfP partners focuses on maritime and cyber security. It is to be hoped that we will not just be ‘open’ to such co-operation, as the Taoiseach said at a recent European Council, but that we will actively pursue it. The Commission on Defence has warned that even our capacity to engage in peacekeeping, our greatest military achievement, is under strain. It is positive that the government has agreed to a recommendation from the Commission for a significant increase in expenditure, if not the most ambitious one possible. Let’s hope the progress is maintained.
Weighing all this up, Gallagher concludes that neutrality is a spectrum along which Ireland has been moving towards one end. The government is correct in saying that neutrality endures if the narrow definition it uses – non-membership of military alliances and non-participation in common or mutual defence arrangements – is the measure. On the other hand, those who argue that neutrality in its more expansive sense has been whittled away are also correct, even if they exaggerate our past purity. Since joining the UN in 1955, we have been obliged to assist in the implementation of decisions by the Security Council. We have never been ideologically neutral. While not directly involved in conflicts, we have supported one side in several of them, including through sanctions. This has extended to a number of wars in which no UN mandate has existed, including in Kosovo in 1999. In the crucial early stages of the Iraq war and during the Ukraine war we have offered material support to a belligerent in the absence of UN cover (the latter being less problematic given that Ukraine is exercising its UN Charter right to self-defence). That material support may have been non-lethal, but this distinction is questionable.
We co-operate with NATO. Most importantly, while the EU is a long way from creating a European army and cedes European territorial defence to NATO, its role in defence matters has steadily increased over the past thirty years, with the financing of the supply of military equipment and weapons to Ukraine breaking new ground. Ireland has been able to maintain a balancing act between the reiteration of ‘the specific character’ of our security and defence policy and involvement in, association with, or non-objection to, successive developments in EU policy.
In his final paragraph Gallagher attempts an answer to his question. ‘Is Ireland neutral? The somewhat awkward answer is no, but then again, no one is. In Ireland’s case at least, it is closer to being neutral than non-neutral. The Irish people just need to decide it that’s somewhere they’re happy to be.’
Our debates about neutrality generate more heat than light. The binary opposition of neutrality and non-neutrality is increasingly sterile. In reality the concept encompasses several elements, some of which apply in our case and some of which don’t. Those elements should be seen as comprising a security and defence policy, not a monotheistic religion. How that policy is developed and implemented should be based on fact and national interest.
Geographically, politically and economically, Ireland is part of the Western world. The world is changing, as it always is, and we need to be nimble in how we adapt. NATO is a force for good made up of friends and partners, even if we do not wish to join it. European integration, which we support, will continue to produce closer military co-operation. The idea that ‘positive neutrality’ gives our foreign policy particular standing is a myth. Our defence capacity, whether to protect ourselves or to assist others, is pathetically limited. In short, neutrality, if that is even the right term, is complex and the environment in which it is applied unpredictable. Given all of this, it would be folly to try to ‘put neutrality in the Constitution’. A meaningful and workable text would be close to impossible to frame, while real-time decisions on how Ireland should act in particular situations should not be subject to retrospective scrutiny by judges.
The good news is that nobody outside Ireland is that interested in or concerned about what we do or don’t do. Nobody is going to press us to answer Gallagher’s question any time soon. And that is probably what most Irish people would prefer.
Rory Montgomery is a former Irish diplomat who served in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin as Political Director and later as Second Secretary General for European and EU Affairs. Abroad, he was Permanent Representative to the European Union and Ambassador to France.